Beau Willimon discusses political thriller Ides of March which was released on DVD and Blu-Ray, and which he adopted from his play Farragut North alongside star George Clooney.
Hi Beau – you were recently in town for the BAFTA’s. How many times have you been to London? What do you like doing when you are here?
I’ve been to London dozens of times; it’s one of my favourite cities in the world. I guess the first time I came here I was a little boy and in the past few years I’ve been here at least 2 or 3 times a year.
The last trip we did the London premiere of Ides at the London Film Festival which was terrific. I had a play go up at the Trafalgar Studios that the Donmar produced called ‘Lower Nights’ which was a terrific production.
They brought me out to do a residency in 2006 and I have a commission with the National Theatre coming up. I love London and I try to get here every chance I can.
When I was a child I remember being frigidly cold. I went to see the changing of the guard at Buckingham Palace and being almost hypothermic but it was a really cool trip. I also remember the Toy Museum – at 7 or 8 years old – and after seeing alot of cathedrals and ruins this was a nice thing to do.
If you get an hour free in London what do you do?
The same thing I do in New York – just walk around. It’s one of the greatest pedestrian cities in the world.
Plus I try and meet up with friends if I can. If I have more than just an hour and can go to see a play I try to do that. The last play I saw here was Richard III at the Old Vic. I’m working with Kevin Spacey at the moment on a television show that we’re doing through Netflix called ‘House of Cards’ based on the 1990 BBC series starring Ian Richardson.
We are setting it in present day Washington DC and Kevin Spacey will play the role that Ian Richardson made famous. We are completely reinventing it so fans of the original will see some similarities but it’s also a completely different animal.
It is the first show of its kind to bypass a traditional broadcast outlet and go out straight through Netflix. We have had 26 episodes commissioned already – it’s all very, very exciting.
Anyway I thought Kevin’s performance of Richard III was extraordinary and it was a real treat to see him in London before the show went on the world tour.
What is it like working with Kevin Spacey?
He is whip smart, he has an incredible work ethic, is deeply insightful. A lot of people have raw talent but to match that with his work ethic and dedication is a rare combination so it’s been a real pleasure to work with him.
So the film… ‘The Ides of March’ is based on your play ‘Farragut North’. George Clooney has been quoted as saying it is a play he was keen to make for a while so how did it all come about?
I wrote the play 8 years ago, I was 26 at the time and I had just come off from working on Governor Howard Dean’s Presidential campaign.
I had worked on a number of campaigns over the years and after I came back to New York once Dean threw in the towel I hadn’t written anything in around 6 months and I was desperate to write. Politics was on the brain so naturally I gravitated towards a story set in that world.
I thought for a few months about the characters I wanted to focus on. I wrote the first draft in a couple of weeks and then spent a couple of months revising it. I sent the script to about 40 theatres around the US and none of them wanted to do it. I didn’t have an agent at the time so I just got all the addresses and sent it off hoping for the best.
None of them wanted it so I shelved the play and about 2 years later I teamed up with my current agent, he read all of my work and said “I want to send out Farragut North” and I said “Good luck!” I think a few factors such as the 2008 President election helped to garner interest, but we got immediate responses from some Broadway theatre producers.
That encouraged us to send the script to LA simply as a writing sample which may result in me getting a gig as a Staff Writer on a TV show or something. It somehow got into the right hands at Warner Bros who were willing to take a chance on an unknown writer.
More importantly it got in George Clooney’s hands and Leo Di Caprio’s hands and I got one of those Hollywood fairytale calls one day from my agent saying “How would you like George Clooney and Leonardo Di Caprio to produce a movie of Farragut North?” After almost passing out I think I said something along the lines of “yes yes yes yes yes”. That is completely backwards from how it normally happens as this play hadn’t been produced yet.
I was able to option the movie rights before the play even had a production. During the midst of writing the screenplay the play finally had its world premiere on Broadway.
How was the co-writing process for the film?
We had a number of conversations early on and then I got to work adapting the play. It wasn’t certain at the time when I started working whether George was going to direct it or not, that was something that evolved. So I wrote the first few drafts and got it to a place where I felt good about it, then George and his writing partner Grant Heslov worked on it independently. When they were finished I looked at it and we talked through the changes and it was fantastic.
How is writing for the screen different from writing for the stage?
Writing a screenplay does require a re-wiring on the brain of sorts. In a movie you can have upwards of 100 scenes of more, they are much shorter; it’s far more visual so you aren’t relying on the dialogue quite as much. In a movie you can have tons of behaviour without a bit of dialogue – at the end both plays and movies are about conveying behaviour and they just approach from different angles.
Going back slightly, you spoke of working on a number of political campaigns including Howard Dean’s presidential nomination in 2004. What are your lasting memories of that period in particular?
I never went into these campaigns thinking I was there to absorb material. My best friend in college worked as an intern on a campaign in college and he asked if I wanted to come and work with him.
It ended up taking over my life for 6 months; it was a wild ride and I had a blast doing it. Jay (my best friend) went on to have a meteoric rise in politics and he would often ask me to come and work on campaigns after that summer. I ended up working on Hilary Clinton’s 2000 Senate campaign.
What did I take from it all? Well you can mostly see that in the movie. Most people when they get into politics have an optimism that they can change the world. The more campaigns you work on you begin to encounter people who have lost a lot of that and are simply in it for the thrill of the game.
Winning becomes more important than the beliefs you are trying to uphold. Power is seductive and when the stakes are high you can often lose sight of why you got into it in the first place. My experiences on the whole were extremely positive and it really helped form me as a person.
Being able to protect your integrity and tap into your passion in a positive way are great tools for life.
Do you think George’s background (his father) influenced his directing or acting style in the movie?
Anyone’s past and background influences what they do. I can’t speak for George but the guy is incredibly astute when it comes to politics, he is very politically active. I think all his various influences helped him create this authentic world we were after in the movie. He just has that raw talent we all know so well as an actor.
A lot of people don’t realise that he is not only a great actor and director – he is also a great writer and a great producer. He wore 4 hats when it came to Ides of March. This movie would not have happened without him. He raised the money for it too. He’s superhuman.
There has been a lot of talk around George moving into politics. Do you think that is something we will see in the future?
Honestly, I don’t think so. He has time and time again said that he won’t run for office but anyone can change their mind. I think he would make a great politician. When I visited the set in Michigan whilst he was directing Ides he ran a pretty incredible machine.
Everything was done on time, in budget, everyone was happy, it was smooth, he had a great sense of humour but his work ethic never flagged. You have to remember that he has these 4 hats (acting, directing, writing, producing) so he is multi-tasking in an incredible way. If our President’s could run our country in the same way that George Clooney directs movies I think we would all be in better shape.
I personally don’t want him to run for office because we need to keep him in Hollywood making great movies..!
What is Clooney like as a director?
Actors who move into directing have a leg-up over their colleagues because they know what it is like to stand in the shoes of his actors. I think that what you sense more than anything on his set is a high level of respect. He respects everyone who contributes to a movie on any level. When people feel respected and have a strong sense of leadership at the helm they contribute their best work. I guess that is really a true sign of a great director – someone who creates an environment for the best work possible to be achieved.
Ryan has received enormous critical acclaim for this film – how did you feel when you were told he had been approached for the part?
I was 100% thrilled. Ryan is one of those incredibly gifted actors who is able to play his ‘poker face’ whilst at the same time almost magically let you know what is going on beneath the surface. That is a very rare gift. You see it in Drive; he is able to show you what is going on between the lines in a way that feels absolutely natural and fundamentally true.
This was a very hard role to play; you have to not lie to the audience whilst deceiving the other characters. Ryan is already a superstar but I think he will continue to evolve and mature into an iconic actor that people will still be riveted by 100 years from now.
The film has been nominated for numerous awards. As a writer how does that feel? How did you find out about the nominations?
Typically I don’t follow awards as it just hasn’t been something I’ve been deeply into. I couldn’t be happier about the recognition this film has got; it’s a miracle in my head how a film can get from the page to the screen at all – there are so many hurdles to jump over even for it to just occur never mind being any good, much less to get any recognition. It’s just the icing on the cake.
I’ve definitely followed the awards this year more closely than years past! I have a personal stake in it now! The first I found out about was the Golden Globes and I didn’t know that the announcements were being made. I was asleep in my apartment in California on the couch and my doorbell started ringing. I thought it was FedEx dropping off a package so I ignored it but it kept ringing and ringing.
Finally I got up to answer the door and two of my best friends were there shouting ‘Congratulations!’ I’m one of those people that if I haven’t had my first coffee and cigarette of the day I’m pretty useless so I thought they were pulling a prank on me. I looked online and saw it was true – the calls and texts started pouring in and it was just incredible
Then we got onto the long list for the BAFTA’s and ended up winning an Australian Academy Award for Best Screenplay which was amazing. Then of course there was the Oscar nomination. I get very inarticulate even trying to describe the feelings I feel about that.
Those came out at 5.30am LA time on a Tuesday morning and I was terrified. I had travelled a lot that week and I was jetlagged and couldn’t sleep so I watched online. When the fateful hour came and I saw we had been nominated I slammed the computer shut and started freaking out. It was 5.30am and no-one was awake. I figured I could start calling my friends on the East Coast in an hour or two but I had this great news and no-one to share it with!
In the end I just called my parents, I didn’t care how early it was, how often do you get to make a call like that? My mum was sobbing on the phone, my dad was screaming like a little girl. It was a great moment for our family.
I took my mum and dad to the Oscar’s ceremony last night; I was able to get them both tickets. I wish I could have brought them to the BAFTA’s but unfortunately they couldn’t make it.
When you get nominated for an Oscar really you just have to start rolling out clichés. It’s a ‘dream come true’.
Once I got nominated I spoke with George and Grant…
We all then e-mailed congratulating each other. I ran into Paul Giamatti at the Golden Globes and we celebrated together; we had a moment.